Reopening schools has consumed town dialogue for weeks. But in this race to get students back into school, there’s one voice that hasn’t been heard as loudly as others have–the workforce this decision to return most depends on.

At last week’s Board of Education meeting, Wilton Schools’ Director of Human Resources Maria Coleman discussed the results of the first survey asking teachers if, at this point, they plan on returning to work in the fall. Of 382 respondents, a total of 105 members of the teaching staff answered that it was possible they might not return–although Coleman said many of those who answered that way (38) did so because of their own childcare concerns, and would perhaps return if their own children return to school.

To hear from teachers directly, GOOD Morning Wilton conferred with five Wilton educators about their concerns, challenges, fears, and hopes for the 2020 school year. Some of the teachers asked us to not share their identities, so we have changed some identifying details or refrained from naming them to enable them to share their thoughts as openly and honestly as possible.

“My Biggest Concern–People in Wilton Not Taking This Seriously”

District officials have been working dutifully to draft plans for the 2020-2021 school year, hosting re-entry committee and Board of Education meetings to thoroughly discuss the risks, concerns, and action steps the district must take to make a full return to school possible. But for one Wilton paraprofessional, it’s not the planning that’s worrisome, but the people the schools are welcoming back.

“My biggest concern is seeing people in town not taking this seriously,” the paraprofessional, who asked to remain anonymous, told GOOD Morning Wilton.

The para, who we’ll call “P.R.,” said that although they are confident that the district is preparing to reopen to the safest and most detailed extent possible, the “outside forces” gathering in large groups and not social distancing could be counterproductive to any of the school’s plans. Especially given evidence from health agencies such as the American Association of Pediatrics that children who contract the virus are often asymptomatic, P.R. said that if the rule-breaking persists up to the start of the school year it could have detrimental effects on teacher well-being.

“The public needs to understand that to make this successful in the fall, they need to do their part, however unpleasant or taxing that may be, and understand that the district and the people who work there are doing their part,” P.R. said.

While younger children may be less likely to become critically ill if they contract the virus, educators potentially are more at risk. In fact, the survey that teachers answered allowed them to review an ADA “checklist of considerations” which might prevent them from returning, ranging anywhere from childcare concerns to pre-existing medical conditions.

P.R.’s concerns about local families may not be unfounded, as a recent uptick in COVID-positive cases in Wilton has been linked to young people and youth sports, and town officials having to close town basketball courts when people ignored the rules.

Personally, P.R. has been taking many safety precautions, only leaving home to go to the grocery store. Two other teachers expressed the same worry that Wilton families won’t safety precautions inside and outside of school.

Nonetheless, despite the risks, teachers know first hand how valuable and essential in-person learning is. K.Q., a Middlebrook Middle School teacher who asked to remain anonymous, said that no matter their personal circumstances, they “can’t wait” to get back to school. However, despite having preexisting conditions that put them at greater risk, K.Q. is confident in the precautions and comfortable going back–but they understand that not every teacher might be.

“For everybody, it’s an insanely personal and weird and horrible decision that you have to make if you don’t want to go back to something that you love,” K.Q. said.

A Wilton teacher for 17 years, K.Q. says their faith in the school and its educators make returning personally worth the risk, especially as the parent of two middle school-aged children whom he wants to experience the magic of the school.

“Honestly, the reason I moved to town was so the girls could go to the school with the teachers that I knew,” K.Q. said. “These teachers and their passion and how much they care–I want my girls to have that… I know the teachers and the teachers that are there are going to kill it. So for me, it’s like, get me back. Get me back because you just can’t do that special thing that you do with kids, which is light a spark through the screen as easy.”

Janet Nobles, who has been teaching chorus at Middlebrook for 26 years, has “very mixed feelings” about going back. However, the way that district administrators and the teachers’ union have communicated with the teachers has been reassuring.

“I feel comfortable–as comfortable as I can going back, but it was definitely made clear, as it was to the families, that it’s up to every individual to figure out what works best for them,” Nobles said. “We’ve been surveyed by by the administration… teachers have a union to protect teachers’ rights and privileges and they’ve surveyed us as well, so I feel like we’re definitely being asked our input.”

Revolutionizing Teaching–More Work, Less Reward

Another motivator for teachers to return to in-person learning was the challenge of remote learning.

Thrust into distance learning with little-to-no time to prepare, many teachers reported working around the clock last spring, with little reward. Kim Cameron, a French teacher at Cider Mill School who also has two children currently in Wilton schools, said she spent 14-to-15 hours working every day. Sixth-grade social studies teacher William Mathews said his emails tripled during remote-learning, and he worked around the clock to accommodate students’ needs. Moreover, even with putting in all of that work, there was still a concern that students’ did not retain as much information as they normally would in a typical school year, which will likely make for extra catch-up work in the fall.

Though returning to school may alleviate the remote-learning burden, K.Q. said that the demands on teachers don’t stop. He points to Schoology, the new learning management software that the district has turned to district-wide. While it may help smooth the transition if the school has to suddenly switch to remote learning, it has forced teachers to adapt to a new way and method of teaching in this already unchartered territory, sparking additional anxiety and stress.

“There’s a lot of serendipitous learning that occurs on team between professionals and over time. And our concern switching over to Schoology was there’s going to be a fair amount [of material] that isn’t going to translate and now we’re going to have to relearn the tools to deliver the education. Is this really the right time to make the switch? and it was another one of those lose-lose [situations],” K.Q. said.

Beyond navigating the new system, teachers must think about how to rework the very way they teach too.

For Cameron, teaching French with masks on presents its own “very concerning” set of challenges.

“So many of the words in French use different muscles, and I move my mouth in a different way to help the children see how to say the word and if you can’t see someone’s mouth it’s difficult to learn that,” she explained. “And I think it’ll be a challenge not being able to see my students’ mouths as well, let alone hearing them because a lot of them are very soft-spoken.”

But Cameron prefers to return to the classroom over remote learning, where its harder to adjust on the fly because she can troubleshoot in class by playing videos and potentially wearing a clear mask, which was discussed at the district’s first re-entry meeting.

For Nobles, the future is a big unknown, as making adjustments safely for her chorus classes depends on the results of a Colorado study released on July 25 about and COVID-19 transmission and safety concerns with singing and using wind instruments. As of right now, she imagines kids will be stationed 12 feet apart with masks on, which could inhibit her ability to teach proper diction and vocal production. Additionally, as the district hopes to curtail students’ movement through the buildings as much as possible, she likely won’t be able to conduct her class in the large auditorium space where kids usually meet for chorus, presenting another unknown for Nobles.

Moreover, in Middlebrook, where students look forward to changing classrooms for each subject, the necessity to cohort may outweigh that privilege and will force teachers to adapt yet again and become mobile. Those restrictions represent another layer of loss for both students and teachers which, though necessary, will be a challenge.

“If that’s the model we go with, we won’t necessarily have that room that we’ve nurtured and sort of cobbled together over the years come alive,” K.Q. said. “That’s the part I’m a little sad about because I know the reason that those sixth-grade kids love middle school so much–it’s not the pizza necessarily or the big lockers, but it’s going into that room with that geeky [teacher] and they’re immersed in this cool weirdness.”

To make up for this loss, K.Q. said teachers will have to be creative–a constant theme of this “new normal.” But for some Wilton teachers, this creative challenge isn’t necessarily a burden.

Mathews, who has been teaching in the district for 21 years, said planning for this fall is a “daily thought process” for him. A teacher who dedicates his classroom to supporting the social-emotional health of his students, he now faces the task of replicating small group work and his daily “huddles” in a socially-distant environment.

Even though Mathews may not be able to gather his class physically close, he believes in-person teaching will afford opportunities to strengthen that social-emotional community. For instance, he plans to continue his ‘huddle’ strategy of tasking each student with recognizing another at the start of class to complete attendance together, which he sees as a bonding exercise to unite the class.

“That sense of someone’s recognizing that I’m here, and I’m recognizing that someone’s here and that means we’re all here. That social-emotional community-building thing that goes so far to creating that sense of community when you’re recognized as being present,” Mathews said, adding that it has a “magical” impact on students’ well-being.

On the curriculum side, Mathews will also rely on technology to help bridge the distance, which is another advantage of being in Wilton where the technology resources are plentiful. Where he once heavily encouraged his students to use paper notebooks, now, to avoid sharing material, he will switch to a digital platform called “Book Creator,” which not only allows kids to keep taking notes in an engaging way, but also to imbed video, graphics and, audio into their note-taking.

Looking Ahead–Why Opening is ‘a Must’

With all the expenses, resources, risk, and uncertainty about the future, people may ask, ‘Why open schools at all?’ But for Mathews and K.Q., there is no question that in-person learning makes a world of difference.

“We’ve spent a king’s ransom on a lot of things that are way sillier than getting kids into a school back to their teachers,” K.Q. said. “I couldn’t think of something better to spend money on.”

For Mathews, he said that he felt the switch to remote learning back in March as if it was a personal loss. To him, having the chance to go back to the classroom means everything.

“It took me a while to recognize this gaping hole that was in my life that developed from not being with them because it’s just so important to have that physical presence and to be able to respond in the moment to the needs of the students, whether it’s academic or social-emotional, or being able to tell them a joke. That was tough, it was really tough. So again, any way we can be back there together, that’s most important to me.”

However, facilitating this happy reunion and making teachers feel safe and supported requires much more than effort from the school district.

P.R. said a culture shift could help educators feel more confident returning to schools, and that parents have to get more comfortable saying no to their children about risky close contact with friends, even when it’s difficult.

“The toughest thing is for a parent to say no…but I think you have to sometimes.”

Nobles went a step further, adding that in order for reopening the schools to work and be sustainable, as a town we must be able to trust each other and be honest with each other without judgment.

“You’ve seen some situations where people are worried about a stigma if they have to quarantine or if someone in their family has had [COVID-19], and I hope people can just remember that this could happen to any of us, and to just try not to make anyone feel guilty or ostracized or bad about getting sick if they get sick,” Nobles said. “We want to wish the best for everybody and feel like we can be honest with each other and tell people when someone’s sick or when someone’s had an exposure so that we can protect everyone and wish the best for everyone.”